Parents to challenge academy plan in court

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The Independent Online

Less than a year ago it was celebrating GCSE results which showed it was the most improved school in its borough. Now Tamworth Manor, a mixed comprehensive in Merton, south London, is set to close this summer to make way for one of the Prime Minister's flagship academies.

Parents are not taking the decision lying down and a test case will be mounted in the High Court next month to try to stop the proposal.

Rob McDonald, whose 15-year-old son, Callan, is due to take his GCSEs at the school next year, will say the council has failed to consult parents adequately over the academy plan.

He will claim it failed to provide parents with any information about the funding agreement with the sponsor, Lord Harris of Peckham - the chairman of Carpetright - or details of the admissions policies of the new school.

In addition, a poll of parents showed they were four to one against the scheme, although only 112 replied.

"Callan had been struggling at the school and they had put enormous effort with me and him to turn things around and now things have started to take shape," Mr McDonald said.

"It is a good local authority comprehensive school and I really don't want to see it closed and taken over and run by a carpet-maker. What experience of education have they got?" Academy sponsors can appoint the governing body and set the curriculum in exchange for their financial outlay.

The potential embarrassment to the Government from the case is obvious.

The Prime Minister's plan to set up 200 academies around the country was founded on the notion of giving parents more choice of schooling. Mr McDonald and fellow parents such as April Ashley, who fears the school her 11-year-old daughter is going to in September will be run down with the focus on the new academy, and pupils such as Rebecca Borg, say that if they do not want it, then why should they have to have it? The Government's other main argument for academies - that they will replace failing inner-city schools that for too long have failed to provide adequate education - does not apply here, the parents say. Last year the school saw the percentage of pupils getting five A* to C grade passes at GCSE rise from 21 per cent to 31 per cent, the biggest rise in the borough.

As a result, the parents said, there was a celebration at which the London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, and the Schools minister, Lord Adonis - who as Mr Blair's former education adviser was architect of the academies programme - were invited to meet the head.

The council faces another problem. It is only two years since the school was refurbished as a result of the private finance initiative, under which the school is in effect mortgaged to the builder so that payment for improvements can be delayed. If it is to become an academy, the "mortgage" must be paid off at a cost of several million pounds.

Merton council is refusing to comment on its proposals, claiming they are sub judice until it knows the result of the court hearing.

Merton may not meet its timetable of opening an academy at Tamworth Manor in September - whatever the outcome.

The proposal has to be given the green light by Peter Matthews, the schools adjudicator - the ombudsman in charge of hearing appeals over school reorganisation schemes - and he is likely to delay his decision until after the case.

If Mr McDonald succeeds in getting a judicial review, the full hearing is unlikely take place until the autumn.

It would be the first successful legal challenge. Others are waiting in the wings - notably in Islington, the former home of the Blairs, where a plan for an academy to include Islington Green schools is being opposed.

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